Chapter Forty Two: goodbyes in the early light of dawn
Word Count: 2,072
*recently edited; 02.14.2012 20:20
She was staring at the clouds over her head, straining to hear the fray going on beyond the edge of the cliff. Everything was muffled by distance and the steadily weakening drumming of her heart. Her breath was coming slower with every pain-laced lungful; all she could feel was a tingling up and down her spine, as if her soul were searching for an exit. Her fingers twitched. She didn’t have to let it all finish this way, she told herself; she didn’t have to sit and wait for the clouds to glaze her eyes over. She didn’t have to anticipate the sound of her own canon fire.
She rolled onto one arm, the world spinning suddenly enough that she cringed and spit up bile. Her breath was shorter, harder, uneven and unreliable, but she dragged her body across the ground with her elbow; she tried to keep her motions brief so the pain could sear and dissipate before she moved again. With a misery-laden determination, she made it to Aeon’s body. Propping her torso up against a nearby tree, she held her hands tightly against the wound in her side, fighting back the river of blood that would not stop pouring out. To his dead body, she said, her voice dry and her tongue like sandpaper in her mouth, “I guess you just couldn’t keep me from being stabbed to death,” and an aphotic chortle broke from her lips, humorless and dead.
She’d wanted to be closer to him, but once she was, she didn’t know why. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him for a long while, and instead she kept her eyes on the cliff edge, desperately waiting to see a hand appear and hoist its owner over the edge. She tried not to get her hopes up. She needed to prepare for the worst, she told herself, and hazily scanned the area for her crossbow but it was nowhere to be found.
The first time she could will herself to look at Aeon, though, she knew he’d given her one last gift. The sniper rifle was heavy in her trembling hand, but she only had to tug once to free the strap from his arm. She could see where the bandolier clipped together, and though it caused agonizing waves of scorching heat to ride all the way up her side, she stretched until she could reach it, and yanked it free from his weight. It took the last of her strength to snap it around her torso and nestle the sniper rifle into her lap, her finger on the trigger and the barrel pointed at the cliff edge.
As her eyes drifted closed, fluttering in time with the rivulets of fresh blood spurting from her knife wound, she murmured, “Thank you, Aeon,” and then the gloom took her.
She dreamed it was raining little black bombs.
She woke up in a shadowed cavern, her breath loud in her ears, and the pain in her side all but gone. She was laid out on a flat chunk of stone, a new heated blanket wrapped around her and the delicate stretching of stitches in her side. She moved to toss the blanket aside but unexpected weight kept it from moving. Straining her eyes, she realized someone was sitting on the floor beside her, his arm propping up his head against the blanket. Even in the dimness of the cave, she knew it was Silas. Her first urge was to wake him, to wrap her arms around him and cry for days; but she wasn’t ready for that. There was a blockage in her chest, some unfulfilled need that pulsated like a second heartbeat, and she didn’t think she could wrap her arms around both Silas and her cancerous darkness.
With the most elusive care, she removed herself from the blanket and slipped out of the cave. For a little while, she simply stood outside in the first traces of pre-dawn light, her arms crossed over her chest as she observed the land stretched out before her. Silas had found a different cave, and judging from the location of the just-rising sun, she thought they were on the opposite side of the mountain from where she’d taken shelter with Aeon. She peered into the cave and wondered how long he would sleep for. She didn’t want to abandon him; the last thing she wanted was for him to think she’d simply bolted after he’d saved her life; but she didn’t want to bring him to Aeon’s cave. It felt wrong, somehow - as if she needed to go there and gather her things and make peace with his death, alone, because that was what he deserved. He’d stepped in front of that spear for her; she’d seen his eyes before it cut through his chest. He had known that he was taking a death that was meant for her.
She gathered some of the bloody rags that littered the stone floor of the cave and tore them into strips. Right at Silas’ feet, she used the rags to form a few simple letters. I’ll be back soon.
She kissed his forehead before she left. On her way out, she grabbed the rifle and bandolier.
The trip was relatively easy. She knew the mountain, even in the strange, ethereal light of dawn, so she did not need to worry about navigation and she could devote all of her attention to disguising her tracks and keeping an ear out for any potential guests. Before the sun had made half the trip up the horizon, she was at Aeon’s cave, collecting her supplies in her pack and going through what remained of his.
There were a few berries left in the bed of leaves he’d used as food storage, and she grabbed a handful of them on her way to the entrance of the cave. Settling her legs over the edge of the plateau, she watched the sun come up in silence, popping a raspberry into her mouth now and again. She took the time to go over each memory she had of Aeon, as if she were combing through her mind for him, and allowed herself to remember all the little details. The awkward stutter of his laugh, the snarl that twisted at his upper lip and nose when he was angry; the bruises on his face when Hawthorne had broken his jaw; the gentility of his fingers when he laced them through hers.
She wanted nothing more than to go back to the Training Center, though she didn’t know why. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was she would have changed. Maybe she never would have smiled at him, maybe she would have been cruel to him; maybe she wouldn’t have done anything differently, maybe she just wanted to see him again, alive.
She crushed the raspberries in her fist as she cried, the juice dripping from between her knuckles to stain her skin and the stone beneath her hand. When her tears dried and the deadened numbness settled over her, she brushed the goop of raspberries from her hand and wiped the juice onto her suit. With one last glance into the cave, she left.
She returned to Silas’ cave as the sun broke over the tips of the forest canopy, pouring warm tangerine light onto the floor of the cavern. She’d hoped to make it back before the light woke him, but it seemed he hadn’t needed it to. He was sat on the makeshift bed she’d been in when she woke up, his arms crossed over his chest. Dark circles lined his eyes, drawing his face in tight lines of exhaustion and stoicism, but she could see the anger behind his stormy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I had to go alone.”
“I can’t forbid you from leaving my sight,” he said, and though he kept the edge to the words buried, it was there.
“You two hated each other,” she said, by way of explanation, but it wasn’t enough to take the cold detachment from his eyes.
“We were two different people after the same thing; hate had nothing to do with it. It was just competition.” He turned his head and she caught sight of the scrap of her dress in his hair.
Complicated, she mused to herself, everything had gotten so complicated. She was supposed to kill everyone in the Arena, and yet there she was, mourning the death of one, owing her life to another. She was desperately torn between leaping from the cliff edge to spare him any further pain and begging him to just let the discussion end.
“Well, he’s dead now, so he’s not much competition anymore.” The words were acidic and hot in her throat, bloated with a fresh wellspring of tears ready to be shed.
“He was never much competition in the first place,” he snapped, and instantly she was furious. She spun to face him, the full wrath of her guilt and regret like a tidal wave in her eyes. He seemed to catch on immediately, though, and his eyes softened. He frowned, as if at himself, and said, “I'm sorry, that was out of line. I... I didn't like the guy but I never wanted him dead.”
"How the hell do you know how much competition he may or may not have been?" Whether she had intended it or not, Aeon was looking back at her every time she blinked; she recalled how very close he’d been to breaking down her walls before Silas stepped in his way.
“Because at the end of the day, gorgeous, we both fought for you; I won, he lost! He practically gave up and I honestly think he would have given up again if I hadn't told him to protect you!” Silas was on his feet, his eyes burning holes into her thoughts as he challenged her to contest the truth of his words.
“You don’t know what he sacrificed,” she said, her voice soft and far away; as if she were pulling herself out of the emotional war going on inside of her mind and brushing off the residue of battle from her dress. Gently, she continued, "You don't know the choice he made. He never gave up on anything - that was the whole point; that was why he held your place - because he knew he couldn't be what it would take to get out of here alive. He gave up his life out of his love for me, Silas; he gave up a chance to be happy so that I could be happy with you. That's what he gave up."
“He gave up his life,” he said, his voice no more than a low rumble from the still-gloomy depths of the cave. “Do you really think I wouldn't do the same for you? Do you think I'd not take a bullet if it meant saving your life? Rory...I know you’re grieving, but he did what he thought was right. That's not your fault.”
“Why is this even about me? Why would either of you do that? I'm going to die in this Arena, just like twenty four other people. I couldn't live with myself if I walked out of this Arena, Silas. I don't know why you're both so determined that I should.” There it was, the whole truth – every minute secret thought she’d been shoving to the side since her boots touched Arena soil. Bared to him like armor when it was little more than a terrified confession.
“Because you’re the light that illuminated the darkness of this Gods forsaken place, Rory; you were my one ray of happiness in this place. I couldn't see the one good thing that came from all this taken from me, Rory. I....I love you.”
She paused to gather herself and closed her eyes for a moment. The rifle weighed heavily on her shoulder, the strap digging into her skin through the suit. Her mind was running a thousand meters a second; she wanted to thank him, to shower him with the gratitude she owed him, she wanted to cling to him and hide in the cavern until the Games ended.
“You’re a damned fool, Silas,” she said, shaking her head as if she disapproved; but then she shifted her gaze to him and smiled, adding, “but I love you, too.”